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Gates Foundation backs U of T efforts to design toilet for developing world

Professors Yu-Ling Cheng and Mark Kortschot with Nathan Myhrvold, Prince of Orange and Bill Gates (photo courtesy of Professor Yu-Ling Cheng)

A University of Toronto engineering team has received a major grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to continue work on designing a waterless, hygienic toilet that is safe and affordable for people in the developing world.

The Gates Foundation awarded the grant, worth $2.2 million for 15 months, to U of T Engineering Professor Yu-Ling Cheng, director of the Centre for Global Engineering in the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, and her team.

Earlier this year, Cheng’s team, which also includes researchers from Western University and the University of Queensland, placed third in the Foundation’s Reinventing the Toilet Challenge.

The U of T Engineering solution uses a sand filter and UV disinfection to process liquid waste and a smolder chamber, similar to a charcoal barbeque, to incinerate solid waste that has been flattened and dried in a roller/belt assembly.

The Gates Foundation grant will help the team work to further simplify the process, reduce mechanical complexity and minimize odour.

“I am very proud of our entire team and the work we have done up to now,” Cheng said. “We have proven that our concept works technically, now we are going to get busy to make sure it will work for the users – some of the 2.6 billion people in the world who do not have access to basic sanitation.”

Western toilets, which rely on running water, an extensive sewer network and an expensive processing system, are not suitable for the needs of people in the developing world – many of whom live in places without the infrastructure we take for granted, she said.

Working with local partners in Bangladesh, Cheng and her team hope to have an operational prototype by December of 2013, one that uses readily available materials and equipment that can be maintained locally, she said.

“We are all proud of the accomplishments of Professor Yu-Ling Cheng and her team, and grateful to the Gates Foundation for the continued support,” said Professor Cristina Amon, dean of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering. “The toilet research project and the Centre for Global Engineering exemplify U of T Engineering’s commitment to doing innovative research that matters and which has global impact.”

The U of T team includes engineering professors Mark Kortschot, Elizabeth Edwards, Yuri Lawryshyn, and Levente Diosady, as well as PhD candidate Tiffany Jung and research associate Zachary Fishman. Professors José Torero of the University of Queensland and Jason Gerhard of Western University are also key collaborators on the project.